SINGAPORE: The legal year opens on Monday (Jan 11), and some lawyers are expecting enhancements to the family justice system to help families resolve disputes in a less acrimonious way.
This follows recommendations made by a high-level committee in 2014, which studied how the family justice system can be strengthened. Since then, improvements made include the creation of the Family Justice Courts on Oct 1, 2014.
The body of courts hears the full suite of family-related cases, including divorce, family violence and Youth Court cases. It is part of efforts to move away from an adversarial litigation process towards a softer approach that places greater focus on counselling and mediation.
One group will be watching any such developments closely – a small but growing number of divorced parents who seek help to be allowed access to their children.
Counsellors and lawyers said that even when they have visitation rights, it is common for some ex-spouses to try to prevent the other party from seeing the kids.
Channel NewsAsia explores what options are open to these parents.
NUMBER OF DIVORCES ON THE RISE
Susan was 15 when she sensed something was not right with her parents' marriage. They were living separately, and eventually got a divorce.
"One of the big things (I remember) was my Dad used to take us to school, but as the years went by, we had to make our way to our schools on our own. (That’s when) we realised that he's no longer there with us,” she said.
“The emotions would bubble up when I remember that we are unable to take trips together, we are unable to have a full family at the dinner gathering. I think that was probably the hardest thing; that I would say that I miss most,” Susan added.
Now 33 years old, the financial consultant still feels the impact of the split, even though it was not acrimonious.
"If I was put through bitter divorce proceedings as a kid, I don't know what I would turn out to be. Will I be mentally trapped? Will I be emotionally unstable? I don't know, I can't pinpoint it, but I do feel the effect right now, even in my own relationships. I do face some kind of dilemma when it comes to being emotionally unattached from a relationship,” Susan said.
Susan is not alone in being affected by her parents' divorce. The number of divorces has been on the rise. In 1980, there was one divorce to every 13 marriages. Today, there is one divorce to every four marriages.
In recent years, the number of divorce writs filed hovered around 6,000 annually. In 2012, 6,276 writes were filed; in 2013, 6,282; and in 2014, 6,017.
In many cases, at least one child is involved - and that is when things can turn ugly.
A counsellor said some try to prevent their former spouse from visiting the children. This is even after the court has granted access or visitation rights.
Founder of Steady Marriages Support Group Gilbert Goh, 54, said: "There's difficulty reaching out to the children. Often it's the father. As fathers, we are only given access once or twice a week, so when the mum says the child has to go for tuition on Saturday, or there's an exam coming, or he's sick – the father actually loses that chance to see the child."
His divorce support group receives about 250 queries a year through its website. Half are related to coping with divorce, while the other half are related to legal aspects such as maintenance, custody and access.
In 2015, it saw a 10 per cent increase in the number of queries related to access issues, compared to 2014.
Mr Goh said this is worrying, as children are also affected when they cannot spend time with both parents.
"If the child grows up just living with one parent, research has shown that there are repercussions. It will actually affect their outlook of their own marriage also and I think we know a lot of divorces happen to children who actually came from dysfunctional families, because maybe they don't have a good image of their own family, so when things go haywire in their own marriage, I think they take the easy way out like their parents. They just cut and (get a) divorce,” he said.
There is also a more serious implication for the children. The Youth Court keeps records of youth arrestees or those who had a Beyond-Parental-Control order made against them. In 2013 and 2014, more than 53 per cent came from families in which the parents were either separated or divorced.
A lawyer said he has seen a 30 per cent rise in the number of parents seeking help over access matters. He said family cases are usually dealt with in a different way.
"The access, the meeting of the children, seeing them, interacting with them will continue, so they remain parents. Therefore to march a person off to jail because he or she didn't allow the children to visit is a bit draconian, and it may well destroy the relationship of father and child, mother and child, ex-husband and ex-wife,” said Mr Amolat Singh, Partner, Amolat & Partners.
Member of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Home Affairs and Law Rahayu Mahzam said the force of the court order is important, because it gives legal weight to a certain position.
“If parties cannot agree, then the court will decide, and that carries weight as far as what the arrangements should be. The reality of it though, living out the court arrangement, policing it, is not something that a third party can do,” said Ms Rahayu, who is also a partner at Heng, Leong & Srinivasan.
LEGAL REMEDY: ONLY PART OF THE SOLUTION
According to the lawyers, a legal remedy is only part of the solution.
"The due process of the law will look at it in the black letter of the law. But if you are able to rope in other forms of help, for instance, some elder relative in the family whom the party respects, reach out to him or her. In at least two instances, I reached out to the church pastor, who was able to speak to the party who was allegedly not allowing the children to see the father, and so things were smoothened out. So I think maybe sometimes the remedies or the answers are to be found a little bit outside the legal system,” said Mr Singh.
Parents may also need support, even after legal proceedings have ended.
"I still do get clients coming back after the divorce process is over. As a lawyer, sometimes it's not just about giving legal advice and telling them what the next course of action is, but to try and hear them out, and try to assist them through it. The access to the different people who are involved in their divorce, some of them actually still continue. So in other words, they still can go back to their lawyers, they can go back to counsellors who have assisted them. They can go to various support centres where there's information available. There are also a lot of training programmes. It exists now, but in certain situations, for example, if the relationship with the lawyer has ended, if you're talking about costs, then that's a different issue,” said Ms Rahayu.
Ms Rahayu also said to better help these parents, it would be good to have someone who went through the divorce process with them.
"It will be useful to have someone who actually understands what they have gone through, and continue to be accessible if they need further guidance and assistance. For example, if they've gotten an order of court, and they realise there's some issue with it, then they could go back to someone who can help guide them along. But that person also has to guide them with the right messaging, so it's not: ‘You know this is wrong, and you should be enforcing your rights and entitlement’. But I think it is about how is it best to deal with this situation, what is the best approach, what is the best for your child,” she said.
AUTHORITIES LOOKING AT MORE HOLISTIC APPROACH
Authorities are seeking to implement a more holistic approach. This includes more cooperation with stakeholders in the family justice ecosystem, such as psychologists, academics and social workers.
In early 2015, the Government appointed four divorce support specialist agencies to help divorcing or divorced parents and their children. One of them is the THK Centre for Family Harmony. It offers a supervised visitation service, where children from divorced or separated families can meet their other parent.
This is to provide a safe and neutral environment for children to develop positive relationships with their parents.
Between 2010 and 2015, the centre handled an average of 150 of these cases. They commonly involved parents with an acrimonious relationship, who could not communicate with each other. Other parents could not agree on matters such as access arrangements, or had concerns over the child's safety.
But parents who face access issues are advised not to give up.
"Fathers should not give up if they have access issues. For some, we encourage them to write to their children, drop it in their letterbox, or make them cards, because when they're young, maybe they have no choice, but when they grow up, I think if they know their father tried all ways to reach out to them, I think it will touch the hearts of the children, knowing that their father didn't give up on them,” said Mr Goh.
Ultimately, counsellors and lawyers said parents need to be responsible and set aside their differences to put the interests of the children first. They said the divorce process should not just be about parents enforcing their rights, but also about deciding how to deal with the situation to ensure what is best for their children.